The forthcoming new model of Galaxy smartphone with a large (7.3”) foldable screen looks as a brave move by Samsung — it opens new options for consumers in using their smartphones and may lead to new patterns of behaviour. But in a rush to get its solution for a ‘larger-than-ever’ screen of a smartphone — the Galaxy Fold — first in the market, Samsung bumped onto apparent technical flaws that were exposed wide-open to the public by early reviewers of the product. It seems that the company was too eager to announce the launch of its new product before completing successful user tests, and now it has to deal with the embarrassment of postponing the launch and double-checking itself under the scrutinising eyes of the whole world.
On the one hand, the Galaxy Fold, as presented by Samsung in its Official Galaxy Site, is quite impressive and inspiring. The presentation gives an idea of added functionalities of display on its screen (e.g., opening two or three apps side-by-side) and the improved convenience of viewing text and pictorial content. Samsung is taking pride in its technology of both the elastic multi-layered polymer-made screen and the hinge mechanism that enables the folding and unfolding of the screen. The device opens-up like a book with the screen inside spreading as a single wide expanse over the device’s central spine. On the other hand, learning of the complaints raised by product reviewers about handling and operating the Galaxy Fold spoils the dream-like image of the device promoted by Samsung. Those complaints include: mistaken removal by the user of a top layer over the screen damages the continuity of its display; the left-hand side of the screen flickers and darkens; a bump felt under the screen at the spine; parts of an image on the left-hand and right-hand sides of the screen are not fully synchronised (i.e., not moving together up and down). [The key issues are eloquently demonstrated and explained in this video clip by Verge on YouTube.] One is left with a more somber impression of the Galaxy Fold.
The device also features a screen on its front façade, when folded, which is said to be too small (4.6”) and not very convenient to work with. It may be regarded, however, as just a ‘window’ to the main screen (e.g., for quick searches); importantly, a full-span display of the same image (e.g., a map) turns up on the screen inside when unfolded.
In its introduction, the new device carries an initial hefty price tag of $2,000, intended for early adopters who seek innovations (orders have already started). It is not unusual with this type of entry strategy to charge a markedly high price from consumers who value the opportunity to try innovative products and to hold them before most other consumers. Still, this introduction price is about double the price of latest and high-tier models of smartphones (excluding a few expensive exceptions). Early reviewers sound skeptical if there are enough benefits in using the ‘double page’ screen to be worth such a price premium; most likely not so as long as the revealed problems with the device are not resolved.
The first solutions for a new product type, especially if it is a breakthrough innovation, tend to be ‘imperfect’ (i.e., having less than the best capabilities), and are subject to corrections and improvements in subsequent versions. There is always a struggle for companies to decide between being a market pioneer with an initial version and waiting longer in order to come up with a product model exhibiting stronger and improved capabilities. Nevertheless, the company is expected to ensure that its initial model performs its intended job at its best. In this case of an expanded screen, it is furthermore not so clear to what extent the larger foldable screen is truly an innovative concept or a more continuous extension of the existing type of smartphone — how significant would be the added usage benefits to future users?
Gerard Tellis and Peter Golder (2002) have cast doubt over the so-called ‘pioneer advantage’ and pointed to the stronger advantages of being a late comer that learns from the mistakes of its predecessors and successfully introduces an advantageous product version. They show that some of the leading brands better known to consumers today were not really the first comers or even second comers in their product categories. They prescribe the attributes identified as key to enduring leadership: vision of the mass market; persistence, relentless innovation; financial commitment; and asset leverage. Tellis and Golder summarise those virtues as having a vision (of mass market) and the will to realise it [*].
What then is driving Samsung? It could be an on-going urge of Samsung to prove it can get a step ahead of its arch-rival Apple in creating new original products (e.g., as it did with Galaxy Note which offers enhanced graphic and drawing capabilities using the S Pen, and is also sold at a price premium over the main Galaxy series). However, Samsung is confronted with a more urgent challenge from other rival companies that are working on their own smartphone models with a larger foldable screen — particularly known about is Mate X by Huawei, but there may also be a redesigned form of Razr (flip phone) by Motorola (the branded mobile branch is now owned by Lenovo).
As argued by Jessica Dolcourt (CNet.com, 23 April 2019), Samsung has given Huawei and other rivals an excellent opportunity to learn from its pitfalls and re-consider how it is best for them to move forward (or step back). It should help any of the competitors of Samsung assess what are the improvements most needed to convince consumers that its foldable phone is the true workable answer for having a smartphone with a larger screen (i.e., greater than 6”). A rival may enforce, for instance, the greater sturdiness of its device. Dolcourt and others mention, following this Samsung’s debacle, a previous incident in 2016 when its Galaxy Note 7, new at the time, exploded and burst into flames (apparently it was so powerful its processor was heating too much). This time at least, Dolcourt notes, no real danger is posed to users by the known flaws. It may be added that the screen of Huawei’s Mate X displays on its front facing outwards; Galaxy Fold could have an advantage here for the intuitive idea of opening-up the phone like a book as well as a better protection of its screen. Additionally, the Mate X is expected to cost even higher than the Galaxy Fold, at $2,600.
Becoming more likely in recent years, Samsung may also need to protect itself from disruption by start-ups whose primary aim is to challenge the way that products of incumbent large firms allow consumers to perform their task with a new and different approach. The answer to that threat is first of all sustained innovation by the established companies, such as Samsung.
Eventually, the big question is whether the greater part of consumers will find real utility and enjoyment in using Galaxy Fold’s enlarged screen, or other models of this kind, when the product’s price becomes more affordable to them. Will it truly be practical and convenient to perform on a foldable 7+” smartphone screen the same tasks one does on a 10” screen of a solid tablet? Can it really be a substitute for a tablet, or will it be misleading consumers to think so? One other claim made about the Galaxy Fold is that the device is a bit heavy and too thick to keep in the pocket of one’s trousers — the mobile smartphone may no longer be so easy to carry around as it should be (as already happens to be the case with smartphones with screens larger than 5.5”). Perhaps the question consumers have to ask themselves is: if and when they need more a smartphone or a tablet (i.e., for what uses or tasks); trying to fit both of them into a single device could be just losing on both. We will have to wait and see how the future of the ever-larger-screen smartphones unfolds.
[*] Will and Vision: How Latecomers Grow to Dominate Markets; Gerard J. Tellis and Peter N. Golder, 2002; McGraw Hill.